Come, Let Us Reason Together

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The paper is called, “Virtue out of Necessity?: Compliance, Commitment and the Improvement of Labor Conditions in Global Supply Chains,” and was written by Richard Locke, Matthew Amengual, and Akshay Mangla. Find it here. So far, I have read only the abstract which contends that compliance-oriented, voluntary programs have not significantly improved labor conditions, then says:

In contrast, this paper documents that a more commitment-oriented approach to improving labor standards co-exists, and in many of the same factories, complements the traditional compliance model. This commitment-oriented approach, based upon joint problem solving, information exchange, and the diffusion of best-practices, is often obscured by the debates over traditional compliance programs but it exists in myriad factories throughout the world and has led to sustained improvements in working conditions and labor rights at these workplaces.

Imagine that. No, seriously, imagine that; indeed, let’s all imagine it. More improvement is achieved when supposedly opposing sides recognize each other as people and sit down together to solve shared problems toward mutual satisfaction. I say “toward” mutual satisfaction because “to” might imply a lack of necessary compromises that seems to me unrealistic. Imagine such a process that enables mutual understanding so that the other party’s needs begin to fit into my own picture of possible resolutions. Effort is focused on problem-solving rather than on fear, anger, resentment, and shame. No one is demonized. No one is silenced, either. The real needs of all parties are legitimized at the table. People have a chance to see for themselves where their felt needs are really emotional reactions that dissipate as they are validated. “Well, you know, I don’t really need that after all; it’s just that I resented the way I was being portrayed, as though I were just a selfish, greedy pig.” That kind of thing. Or, “Sure, we can do that; it’s just that we were sick and tired of being treated as lazy, untrustworthy thieves with no interest in the company’s future.” That kind of thing, too.

Our habit of opposition has created some incredible assumptions (literally incredible). Farm workers are the enemies of farming. Teachers are the enemies of education. Workers are the enemies of production. Lawyers are the enemies of the law. Judges are the enemies of justice. For example, the entire history of No Child Left Behind and the so-called reform of education has treated real educators, especially elementary school teachers, as malicious dolts blocking the progress that can be driven by business people who know nothing of child development or of teaching. Sadly, the Obama administration has so far failed to change this downward progress toward the dehumanization of our children.

When I was a boy, I liked to sit at our kitchen table in the evening and listen to my father talk about his work. He was a production superintendent for a large manufacturer of building products. One evening he told me he had been cautioned not to tell other production superintendents how much his “men” (the people who worked on the production line) were making because they were the highest paid in the plant. Interestingly, his own profit sharing was also at the top. How could both be true? From him, I got my early lessons in treating people as people, listening to them, regarding them with respect, and making decisions that took into account their interests, for mutual benefit. I learned about getting along with the union by being fair and forthright. It wasn’t perfect. There could still be problems with the union, of course, but they were minimized by trust. Some workers could be unreasonable, lazy, or difficult, certainly, but mutual respect (not buddy-buddy that would undermine authority) minimized trouble by lowering the levels of negative emotion.

To my dad, his men were never tools to be used then tossed aside. He hated having to fire someone. He did it, of course, when it had to be done. One evening, he was angry and frustrated because he had had no choice but to fire a man who was a good worker with long seniority, but the man had tossed a broom over the fence as a favor to a friend. Stealing from the company left no latitude; it was automatic termination. Looking back, what I admire in my father was his upset over the matter. He actually cared. Later I would have a boss who could fire someone without blinking and throw his own son out of the house the same way. Is that judgment accurate? Maybe not. Maybe it did upset the man who simply hid his feelings. I hope so. But it’s the contrast in viewpoint and approaches that matters here, not any notion of trying to make my dad a saint (he wasn’t) or my former boss a demon (he wasn’t, either).

Back to the thesis. We get more done to mutual satisfaction and benefit when we recognize both sides as people, sit down together, listen respectfully to each other, and work on solving the actual problems that come into focus as the emotional debris is cleared away. Imagine that, please.

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